Balkanrail 2013

Balkans in nine days. Greece-Bulgaria-Romania-Serbia-Macedonia-Kosovo-Greece

On Thursday 17th of October I was having a conversation with my flatmate Severin about a trip to Thessalonki we’ve been planning to do in a few weeks. The conversation was something like this:

“Hey what do you think about that Thessaloniki trip?” “Yea, I guess we could go there. I’d like to see the Balkans as well since it’s in the same direction.” “Sounds cool. Actually I have no plans for this weekend. Wanna go now?” “Well I have school next week but I guess I can skip it. Shall we leave tonight?”

After a last minute shopping we took a night train to Thessaloniki. Once we got to Thessaloniki we bought Balkan flexipass which allowed us to use as much trains as we want on seven days within one month. By the way, don’t buy that pass online, it’s half the price at railway stations.

Friday the 18th

In the morning we took a bus to Sofia (since all the international railroads from Greece has been suspended) and arrived there around 2pm. We found Sofia really beautiful with an atmosphere of a smaller city. There were a plenty of old houses no one takes care of, many impressive churches and nice little parks.

We felt a little bit tired since the train wasn’t the most comfortable place to sleep but we didn’t actually have any plans where to sleep at. There was one protestor camp in front of the parliament which has been there already for eight months. We met some people at the camp who were protesting against the politics, the government and the overall system of Bulgaria. After an interesting conversation we went for a coffee and came back. There wasn’t anymore anyone speaking proper or even understandable English but somehow we managed to agree with one woman that it would be ok to sleep in on of their tents for one night. It was an excellent night, at least if you forget the coldness, the uncomfortable ground, my snoring and one drunk protestor who tried to sleep next to us at 5am.

Saturday the 19th

In the morning we were up before the sunrise and caught the morning train (well we got to train just one minute before the departure) towards Burgas.

One of the biggest things I’ve been missing about Finland is the Finnish autumn with all the golden-yellow-orange-red leaves in the trees and the chilly mornings. In the train I opened the window and enjoyed the fresh and cold air while watching the sun rising behind the mountains and showing all the colours of Autumn. I could have been in Finland for sure. It was one of the most incredible moments, I just kept smiling and stand there next to the window for an hour or two.

In the train we talked with an elder man and asked where we should get off from the train since we wanted to go to the mountains. He recommended the city of Karlovo. While the train stopped there we decided to give it a try. That was absolutely the right decision. The city was really cute and lovely even though even no one understood English. The mountains were just behind the city so it was sure that we want to go there. We asked around if there were some mounting cottages existing where we could spend a night. One man told us that that there would be several cottages so we could just hike there and choose one of those.

After a lunch we went to supermarket to buy something for the dinner and started hiking to the mountains. It was incredibly beautiful to walk in the valley following the river flowing in between of mountains. All the colours were so bright in the sunlight and the view was breathtaking. After few hours of hiking we reached the first cottage but we wanted to keep going even though the warned us that it’s Saturday and the cottage we had in our mind would be full already. Anyway we wanted to go there so we thought we could sleep on the floor if there wouldn’t be any free beds.

One Bulgarian woman joined to our group since she had the same destination. We reached the second cottage and they said the same thing that the one cottage would be full but we wanted to try it anyway. We knew that we didn’t have that much time before the sunset so we had to hike a little bit faster. Well it was actually more like running in the paths than just walking there. We reached our destination in time just before it got really dark. It was lovely little house in the middle of the hills. Despite of our expectations we even managed to get a bed from the cottage. I guess I have to thank my German friend who were able to speak in German with the owner. She seemed to be quite pleased about speaking in German.

Once we had our room there was still a little bit light outside so we went to the creek to take a bath. I can say that skinny dipping in a creek in the middle of the national park somewhere in Bulgaria (we weren’t exactly sure about our location. At that time we didn’t even know the name of the city which we came from) is unbelievable amazing but freaking cold. Afterwards we got inside and sat next to a fireplace and drank some raki with local hikers so we were just fine. It was a Saturday night and I went to the bed at 10.30pm. I guess it was just a perfect way to spend a day.

Sunday the 20th

On Sunday we had an really morning since we wanted to catch a train from Karlovo at 10.15am and there was a lot of hiking to get there. We left the cottage before 7am while it was still dark. With a help from moon and flashlight we were able to find our way until the day began. We didn’t actually see the sunrise since we were walking next to the river down in the valley but we saw the first sun rays reaching mountain tops and colouring everything golden.

After three hours of hiking we got to the railway station and enjoyed the sun and a cup of coffee before we got in to the train. During the trip we met one local woman who told not to go to Burgas but to Varna and some smaller villages in the north of Varna. She told that there would be better beaches, great cliffs, natural flames and hot springs in that area. Since we didn’t have any exact plans for Burgas it was easy to change the plan. To get to Varna we had to change the train in Karnobat. It was quite small city quite far away from the train station. We tried to hitchhike to the city but I guess two twenty something guys sisn’t the most interesting company for Bulgarian forty something men driving cars. We had only 20 minutes in the city after all the walking but since it was a small place we managed to see the most of the centrum.

In the next train we met this fucking ass-though Romanian guy who should really pay some attention to his language, man. Despite of hearing the words man, fucking, ass, bitch and shit a couple of hundred times he was quite interesting company. We were surprised about the long distance to Varna and it was already 7pm when we got there. It was war too late to try to go to any of the smaller villages so we took a bus to one holiday resort called Constantines and Helena. Normally I wouldn’t go anywhere close to those places but we’ve heard that it’s the closest place to Varna where you can find hot springs.

After 15 minutes bus ride we got to the resort which was totally empty. There wasn’t no one there but one yoga group in one hotel. During the summer the whole place must be so crowded since there was maybe 20 to 30 different hotels in that area, some small ones and some huge ones. We chose one of the hotels and went inside to chat with the receptionist. He was rally nice and helped us by telling how to find those hot springs. Since we didn’t have any place to sleep at and it was already 8pm we asked that guy if there is anything we could do in the hotel to pat a room there. Unfortunately he said that the season is about to end so there’s nothing to do anymore. Then he turned his back to us and after one minute of thinking he came back to us and said that he has one single room if we want to take it. Well it wasn’t that hard decision to make if we want to sleep in a hotel for free or outside below 10°c.

We left our stuff in the room and went for a dinner. The whole resort was completely empty so there weren’t too many choices for the restaurant. After the dinner we went for the hot springs but there was no water there so no evening bath for us. You can trust me when I say that after a few days of travelling a bed in a hotel feels incredible.

Monday the 21st

At the morning we woke up to see the sunrise and to go for a morning bath in the sea. We went to the same place as yesterday and this time there was water in the hot spring. Taking a bath in 40°c water at 8am feels quite good. This was the first time we were at Black Sea so it was obligatory to swim in the sea. The difference between 40°c springs and 13°c sea was huge and the chilly morning weather didn’t really make it easier. Anyway we went to swim and afterwards we ran on the beach. That’s the war to start a new day!

We took a cab to the railway station since we were a little bit late, we brought something to eat and took a train to Ruse. The time passed quite fast and we were even able to sleep a little bit. We got to Ruse and went for a lunch. We didn’t have too much time there because we were going to take the next train to Bucharest. In the centre we realised we’re already running late so we had to run to catch the train. We got in to the train just one minute earlier the departure. We crossed a huge bridge over river Danube and got to Bucharest in the evening. After a walk around the downtown we had lunch and missed the last metro to train station so we had to take a cab since we were too exhausted to walk anymore. We have beed told that there will be a morning train to Sibiu at 6am so we decided to sleep at the station.

Tuesday the 22nd

At the morning when we woke up we realised that there is no train going to Sibiu at that time. Well there was no other possibilities than changing our plans again so we checked the departure trains and chose one going to Brasov which is quite small city located in Transylvania next to the mountains. We knew nothing about the city but we found really nice with all the medieval buildings. One of the first things which took our attention was this Hollywood-styled sign in the mountain telling the name of the city. Not that surprisingly we wanted to check it out and see the view all over the city. There was a gondola lift but we preferred hiking there. The view from the hill was spectacular.

Once we got back to the city we had some dinner before catching the next train. We were really happy that this time we had a plenty of time before the departure so we don’t have to run to catch the train. Somehow the time passed quickly and we found ourselves running in the streets to catch the train… Just one minute before the departure we got in the train. Sometimes it’s really easy to sleep in a train and sometimes it’s just impossible. This time it was impossible.

Wednesday the 23rd

We were heading to Serbia so we had to change trains first in Arad and then in Timisoara. Once we got to Timisoara around 7am we noticed that the morning train to Serbia had already left - just 20 minutes before. The next one would be un eight hours so we decided to find an another way. Hitchhiking to Serbia sounded like a fun thing to do so we asked around where would be the best place to catch a car. Once we got the information we took a bus next to the road going to the border. After less than a minute of standing there one car stopped for us and took us to Moravita, just next to the border. Without any common language it was pretty difficult to make any conversation. After an hour we got to Moravita, had some lunch and decided to walk to the border since it was only two kilometres from the village.

Crossing the border by waking was a fun thing I’ve never done before. At the Serbian border we asked one officer to translate one letter we wrote a day before to Serbian language. We had this idea that it would be fun to work in a local farm for one day and het some food and a place to sleep in return. Since we won’t probably have any common language we wanted to have this letter in Serbian explaining everything. We were on our way to Vrsac and we knew that the city is known for it’s agriculture and wine so it fitted perfectly to our plans.

After crossing the border to the Serbian side there were around 15km to Vrsac. We didn’t really have any better options than to walk there and try to hitchhike every time a car passes us. It wasn’t that easy as in Romania. After 20 cars and 5 kilometres one car picked us in and we got to the city.

We thought our idea was awesome so we started to look for a farms. We found only two from the area we were in but in both farm they rejected us immediately. We were quite disappointed but decided to try the winery in the other sides of the dirt. We hitchhiked to the centrum, walked to the winery and got rejected again. It was already afternoon and we were exhausted and disappointed so we decided to check the departedre trains. Another hour of walking to the station. There was one train to Beograd which sounded ok for us. There was some time before the departure so we ate some meat for a dinner.

Once we got to Beograd it was already around 7pm. We had to change the station to get to the main station. We had an idea to take a night train to the coast of Montenegro but once we got to the station we found out that the last train took off just 20 minutes earlier. So we had to change the plan. There was one night train to Skopje, Macedonia so we decided to go there.

Thursday the 24th

We arrived to Skopje next morning. It was a really beautiful place with around half million inhabitants. It reminded me of Istanbul with all the mosques, minarets and bazaars in the old town. The new side of the city centre was very nice, clean and full of statues. Later on we met a local guy who told us that the state is investing quite much money to built an beautiful city centre which tells about the history of Macedonia.

Time passed by fast while we were wandering in the city and tasting some local products at the open air market. We even took a nap for and hour or two just laying on the grass in the park. The evening came and we didn’t have a clue where we would sleep so we decided to meet some locals and see what happens, maybe we find something for the evening and if not at least we’ll meet new people.

In the central square we met three locals guys on their way to have a cup of tea and they asked us to join them. We were exchanging our experiences and thoughts about different cultures. They were a little bit worried about us having no place to sleep in and they tried to arrange something for us. Unfortunately there was nothing they could do so after having the dinner we left to the train station to sleep.

It was one of the most awful nights ever. We found a quite good and dirty spot but just after one hour of sleep some police officer came and started to shout to us so we had to change the place. We went downstairs where all the homeless people were sleeping. They had taken all the benches but there were two of those automatic massage chairs unoccupied so we took those. aFter a few seconds some alarm started to ring - apparently you can’t sit in those chairs without paying. The third place we tried was in a corridor. If you don’t care about cold and hard floor it was quite ok. The biggest problem was a cleaning guy washing the floor with some really noisy machine so it was a little bit difficult to fall asleep.

Friday the 25th

In the morning 5.45am we were woken up by some woman working in a office in the same hallway where we were sleeping in. Once we were up we decided ti take a bus to Pristina in Kosovo. I was sleeping almost the whole trip and Severin was handling the passport controls. Once we got to Kosovo we needed some local money. An easy way to make a fool out of yourself is to of to exchange office and ask about the exchange rate between euro and the local currency. It took a few minutes to realise that the local currency is actually euro as well.

We walked to the centre with two another back baggers from Turkey. In the centrum we ate some breafast and asked if there was an swimming hall in the city since we hadn’t taken a shower since the Black Sea. Unfortunately there wasn’t one. We asked some another locals what we should see in the city and they recommended just to walk around in the centre and then get to Prizren which is supposed to be a lot more beautiful place. Luckily one of those guys was going there in the afternoon by car so we set up a appointment with him to get there. Before that we had five hours in the capital which we used for walking around, eating some lunch and checking out the open air market. It was quite nice place with western Europe atmosphere.

At 3pm we met the man taking us to Prizren. During the trip he was telling something about Kosovo’s history. We got the the city somewhere around 4pm. We checked out the centrum and walked up to the castle to see the sunset. The city was really beautiful with all the old buildings, mountains and a river flowing through the centrum. We really felt like we need a shower and some good sleep se we took a room from a hostel. Actually it wasn’t that clear decision, the conversation was more like:

“Okay, so I guess we should go to the railway station to check out if it’s possible to sleep there.” “Yep, I guess so… Oh it would be great to sleep well and have a shower.” “Mmmm, you’re right but I don’t actually wan’t to pay unless you really want to…?” “No, I guess I’ll be fine. But I won’t hate you if you want to get a hostel.” “It’s up to you but I won’t hate you either if you want to take the room…”

This continued for a while until we just decided to look for a hostel.

After taking a long hot shower we headed to the centre. In our hostel these there was a list “Top 10 European cities for nightlife” claiming Prizren being the 3rd one. We doubt the reliability of the list but anyway it have two recommendations to check out. The first one was a pub near the main square. We were chatting with a few locals for a while and decided to check out the other bar as well. That one was hidden behind a pair of red doors so you’re not able to find it if you don’t know what you are looking for. Behind the doors there was a big inner yard with outdoor cinema and some tables and benches belonging to the bar. The atmosphere was just incredible. We met a big group of international architecture students there and had a really good time with them. One of the organisers for that meeting and seminar told that they were going for an excursion the next day to some small cities in Kosovo and we would be welcome to join them. That soured like an awesome idea so we agreed about meeting them at the bus station at 8.30am the next morning.

Saturday the 26th

Having a real bed for sleeping felt amazing. We had some breakfast at the hostel and then we headed to the bus station. We were a little bit late since the day before someone told us that they would leave half hour after the meeting time we weren’t worried. Once we got to the bus station just 10 minutes late we weren’t able to find anyone from that group. Either they all were just in time and left early or they were really late. We were quite pissed off missing this trip and changing the plan. Our original idea was to take a bus back to Skopje and didn’t really have any better ideas so we hopped in to that bus. We arrived to Skopje and ate some luck and took a train to Geugelija where we hitchhiked to the border (first we thought about walking there and we tried it but it didn’t feel that safe walking next to the highway in total darkness), crossed the border by walking and started to hitchhike to Polykastro. If you want to hitchhike make sure you don’t do it in a group of two men or in Greece. We were not sure which one was the bigger problem. Anyway it took a long time to get a car. We stand there in coldness for three and half hours in Saturday night and saw hundreds of cars passing us…

After all we got to Polykastro with a help from a farmer, we grabbed something to eat and found out that the first bus leaves at 8am so have 7 hours to spent in the city. Even though it was Saturday night we didn’t really have enough energy to go to clubs or anything. We were walking around the streets and discussing about where should we sleep. We asked two guys if the bus station is open during the night but they weren’t really sure. We spent some time together and when we were about to leave to check the bus station one of those guys told that actually his family has a hotel so we can sleep there. It’s awesome to find people this kind and i’s the best feeling to have a real bed after a long day. Especially when you thought you’re going to sleep at the bus station.

Sunday the 27th

We woke up quite late since we didn’t want to set up any alarm. We had some breakfast with this guy from the day before and we took a bus to Thessaloniki. I had one friend visiting Thessaloniki at the same time so we had some lunch with her. Later we took a train back to Athens.

I guess it’s needless to say this was an awesome trip and we made some great experiences.

Balkanrail in a nutshell.

Deciding to go inter railing and starting it just a few hours later. Sleeping in front of the parliament in Sofia with some local protestors Hiking in the mountains in a national park in Bulgaria, swimming in a mountain river, drinking some raki with local hikers, hiking in a moonlight Standing next to the open train window, breathing the cold autumn air and enjoying the colours of the autumn leaves Getting a three star hotel for free, taking a morning bath in the Black Sea and in a hot spring Hiking to the Hollywood styled sign saying Brasov Trying to work at Serbian farm and winery Drinking beer at old open air cinema in Kosovo Sleeping at the train station of Skopje and being woken up by a angry shouting police man, trying to sleep in a massage chair and launching some kind of alarm in the middle of the night, sleeping in the floor and being woken up by an early officer Standing in the coldness for three and half hours while trying to hitchhike to Polykastro from the border of Macedonia and Greece at the midnight Meeting two great guys in Polykastro and a getting a hotel room for free Crossing some borders by feet Meeting a bunch of great people

Balkanrail 2013

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Eetu Ahanen

Freelancer Photograher and Digital Creative living between Helsinki and Paris. Into urban culture, communality, travelling and summer cottages.

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